Loneliness in the big cities affects different social groups and exacerbates mental health problems

Loneliness in the big cities affects different social groups and exacerbates mental health problems

A study led by IDOR analyzed research about involuntary isolation in urban centers and identified interventions that can assist in improving the quality of life for the population 

Urban centers appear to be the triumph of human evolution over nature, and perhaps that is why the majority of our species inhabit these concrete jungles. However, mental health issues are also prevalent in these environments, with loneliness paradoxically being a catalyst for these processes. Considering the impact of loneliness in large cities, especially after the prolonged periods of social isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, a study by the D’Or Institute for Research and Education (IDOR) aimed to review the main scientific research conducted on the subject in recent years. The study also highlighted interventions that may be effective in reducing the feeling of isolation in urban centers. The results of the study were published in the scientific journal Current Opinion in Psychiatry. 

Urban centers are recent for the human species  

When we consider our evolutionary journey, we abandoned nomadism, foraging, and hunting to produce our own food. We then transitioned to trading surplus production and living in increasingly diverse and populous communities, which required more complex governance, and new occupations, and became the stage for the development of essentially everything we know today. However, considering that we have only spent a few hundred thousand years as Homo sapiens, the urbanization process is still very recent for us. We spent the majority of our evolutionary life in communities of up to 150 people, intimately connected through family networks. 

According to the article, while loneliness is a subjective perception with different cultural parameters, some studies indicate that environments with a high concentration of people who have no familiar relationship can accentuate feelings of isolation. There are also scientific reports that loneliness negatively affects mental health and increases mortality rates, even capable of altering the neural circuitry of our brains. 

The authors report that loneliness was already a relevant topic in scientific research but emerged as a global concern, especially after the effects of compulsory social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic that began in 2020. Considering this, they evaluated the main scientific publications on loneliness from that period until the end of 2022, totaling 82 studies analyzed from a search on PubMed, the leading international platform for biomedical research articles. 

Studies on loneliness in cities are few and mainly conducted in developed countries 

Of the eighty-two studies analyzed, most were conducted by countries such as the United States, China, and European nations, with not a single representative from Africa and Central and South America found in the searches. Moreover, only 2 of the analyzed articles actually focused on interventions regarding loneliness in urban centers, highlighting the need for more research tailored to urban populations and greater scientific representation from emerging countries in the discussion on the topic. 

Of the total analyzed, 44 studies tested interventions to reduce loneliness, with half of this sample focusing only on actions for the elderly population, while only 7 articles addressed the younger population. The authors of the comparative analysis comment that, although the elderly were the main risk group during the pandemic, the young were also strongly impacted by social isolation, and the lack of attention to this age group indicates negligence towards this population and their vulnerability to loneliness. 

Interventions can reduce the feeling of isolation  

Among the many interventions observed in the study, a significant portion had a technological nature, involving activities based on video conferencing and the use of apps. One case highlighted by the current study was a low-cost intervention that trained volunteers to make empathetic phone calls to the elderly who might be suffering from loneliness. Each volunteer supported six to nine participants with the goal of a 10-minute conversation in each call, but the elderly could choose to extend this contact time. At the end of the intervention, the results suggested improvements in the feeling of isolation observed in these participants. 

Another highlighted intervention was a randomized clinical trial focusing on young Australian adults. The initiative was based on Groups 4 Health, a program targeting psychological distress caused by social disconnection, using group identity as the focus of its interventions. After a year of observation, participants in this clinical trial showed a slight advantage in reducing loneliness compared to conventional therapy groups. 

According to the authors analyzing these loneliness studies, the lack of social identity may be associated with high rates of loneliness in large cities, especially for political minorities and immigrants. This emphasizes the importance of group interventions that foster connections through common identities. 

Another factor observed in the current publication is that interventions with a religious focus may also be more effective in their results, provided they are applied to a population that identifies with those beliefs. In other words, the researchers emphasize that cultural appropriateness and identity are highly relevant factors in reducing loneliness and should be considered in initiatives seeking to promote social connection. 

Reducing loneliness is a public health interest  

The scientists emphasize that many of the analyzed studies did not use a gold standard in their data collection methodologies, and the intervention group sizes were often small to project their effects on a large scale. Nevertheless, the increasing research on the topic highlights the growing importance of the effects of loneliness in modern societies, and some results of these studies have proven relevant for raising awareness and discussing social isolation as an exacerbating factor for mental health problems. 

Using technology to support public policies or independent initiatives to reduce social isolation can be a promising and preventive path for mental health problems exacerbated by loneliness. However, it is still necessary to pay attention to how people from different communities and age groups perceive isolation so that personalized interventions can be thoughtfully designed, more suitable, and effective for the heterogeneous population of large urban centers. 

Group therapy provides social support and enriches perspectives 

It is common to imagine therapy as an environment where only the psychologist and their patient meet, but there are various forms of psychological treatment that deviate from this pattern, bringing differentiated benefits. This is the case with group therapy, an activity where individuals share experiences or similar challenges with the assistance of a psychologist who mediates interactions and proposes collective exercises. 

Among the main advantages of group therapy are social contact, the variety of perspectives presented by other participants, greater accessibility compared to the cost of individual sessions, and scientific evidence proving the effectiveness of this intervention, provided that the participant has a profile and needs that can be benefited by this therapy—factors that should be analyzed beforehand by a qualified psychologist. 

In the Psychology Undergraduate program at IDOR, future psychologists are supported in discovering the breadth of their professional activities, whether in clinical or scientific fields, or even both. Studying at a research center of excellence also benefits students in constantly updating their fields of interest and provides contact with internationally recognized professionals and scientists. Check the course website for more information and sign up to receive updates on the opening of new classes! 


Written by Maria Eduarda Ledo de Abreu. 


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